Do you have New Year's resolutions? Surveys show that most Americans do. And many of us who don't attach self-improvement significance to January 1 still have goals that we're trying to reach: to improve our health or our relationships, to lose weight, to advance our careers, and on and on.

That, of course, is the problem. We start out with big plans and multiple goals that we can't immediately reach and they quickly get swept away in the pressures and commitments of the complicated, over-scheduled lives we already have. Soon, we've fallen way behind on our ambitious plans and we're annoyed at ourselves for having failed yet again.

It doesn't have to be this way. Eight years ago, Leo Babauta, author of the highly popular blog Zen Habits, described a simple and powerful process for changing that dynamic and actually accomplishing major life changes. That blog post is still making waves today because it's just as valid as it ever was--maybe more so, in this age dominated by social media and struggles for work-life balance and complexity of every kind. 

Perhaps the most surprising and thought-provoking passage in that post comes toward the end. Babauta first describes how he radically improved several areas of his life by making just one small change at a time, and taking the time to enjoy and be grateful for that small change. Then, he makes this rather radical statement: "And then I gave up goals." It turns out, he explains, that you can accomplish the same progress by making incremental small changes in the direction you want to go as by having an overarching goal you're working toward. Some motivation experts believe in the power of visualizing where you want to be in five or 10 years and might take issue with this idea. But, at least for someone like me who's always been goal-oriented, it's an intriguing and liberating concept.

How did Babauta go about making the small incremental changes that got him, for example, from overweight couch potato to marathon runner? He has a four-step formula--what he calls an algorithm--for getting it done:

1. "Start very small." 

For example, Babauta began his journey to marathon running by running for 10 minutes every day.

2. "Do only one change at a time."

This is important, because if you plan to make several changes at once, or your changes are on some sort of grand schedule where you'll run 10 minutes this week and 20 minutes next week, you're setting yourself up to get overwhelmed and do none of it.

3. "Be present and enjoy the activity (don't focus on results)."

This might seem like a tricky instruction in some situations. After all, if you're running with the intention of lowering your blood pressure or fitting into that new dress, but you hate running in itself, it might be hard to enjoy the activity. Babauta doesn't say so, but I believe that's the whole point. If you hate doing something, don't do it. Life is too short. Instead, find a way to achieve the same purpose with a different activity.

4. "Be grateful for every step you take." 

Babauta says he was grateful for every run he was able to make, and every healthy meal he ate. Gratitude is an important way to increase our own happiness, studies have shown. If you can't feel thankful for the changes you're able to make, then don't make them. Instead, make a change that really will make you feel satisfied and fulfilled.

There you have it. Four simple steps--or an algorithm, if you prefer--for cultivating new habits and making profound and long-lasting changes--and for enjoying those changes every step of the way, whether or not you ultimately reach some grand goal.

Published on: Jan 28, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.